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September 2010

Even though it caters to angry shut-ins whose taste in home décor tends heavily to the animal-bone-intensive, metal is a business, and like most businesses, it has its doldrums. The vicissitudes of the music industry hit hard this time of year, as summer starts to wind down and school begins, and even the hardest-touring deathgrinders get sick of trying to find a vegan burrito in Columbus, Ohio at 3:20 a.m. But even when new releases start to slow down, Metal Box never rests, thanks to a combination of drug abuse and sleep disorders. So put down that sunscreen and banish all thoughts of one final beach trip; stay indoors with us as we unearth the best of hard rock and heavy metal for another month.

HOWDY, STRANGER. Valient Thorr comes from Venus, which is a lot like Chapel Hill only it’s louder and it smells worse. Its delicious blend of stoner rock and throwback metal is designed to penetrate the thick layers of reek emanating from the band’s every pore and drill straight into the fun centers of your brain. Its latest release, Stranger (Volcom Entertainment), doesn’t have quite as much crazed entertainment value as its predecessor, 2008’s Immortalizer, but given how prolific the band is—this is its sixth album in eight years, released on top of a crippling tour schedule—it’s still remarkable how consistently good Valient Thorr has remained. On the downside, Stranger is hobbled with some sort of goofball concept-album nonsense. (Hey, metal bands, can we all just agree to get back to writing songs for a little while? Concept albums are becoming to metal what skits are to hip-hop.) Additionally, you can almost time it to the point where everyone in the band crashes and still has to get through the last few songs before their nap. But Jack Endino’s production gives a fine crackle to the songs, and the good stuff, while not as plentiful as on the last go-round, is absolute gold when it hits the sweet spot. To not like Valient Thorr is to not like being alive; this is another lively set of whoppers from the coolest Venusians around.

BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS. Finland’s Lordi is also hard to dislike, if for no other reason than that it’s the only metal band to ever win the Eurovision Song Contest and disappoint dozens of trash-disco enthusiasts from Portugal and Slovakia. But with the release of its latest, Babez For Breakfast (The End), it’s almost like Mr. Lordi is daring us to rescind all the goodwill he’s built up over the years. Maybe it’s because Lordi has become such a multimedia machine, with comic books, movies, and other fripperies to attend to, or maybe it’s just started to believe its own hype, but Babez For Breakfast doesn’t have much to recommend it beyond the hilariously wrong album cover. The first single, “This Is Heavy Metal,” doesn’t even make the case of its title all that well, but it’s far better than the limp offerings that follow, including the atrocious ballad “Call Off The Wedding” and the skit/novelty-track “Granny’s Gone Crazy.” Like its idols in Kiss, Lordi has always compensated for the gimmicky costume and makeup by turning in credible hard-rock anthems, however much tongue was in cheek; now it seems the band is taking its image a lot more seriously than its music, and that isn’t going to end well for anybody.

BLACK TRACKS. Since Varg Vikernes is more interested in being a celebrity these days than putting out good records, the 2010 award for Best Burzum Album will go not to Belus, but to Handful Of Stars (Season Of Mist), the new release by Ukrainian black-metal outfit Drudkh. Drudkh has been putting out an insane amount of material in the last decade, both by itself and with numerous side projects, and its music continues to evolve. Following the path that Burzum took years ago, it’s started to strip everything down, slowing and lowering its riffs and pumping up the moody atmospherics. It’s not exactly a new approach, but if Varg isn’t going to pick up the slack, it’s good someone else will…

Sweden’s Rogga Johansson is just as prolific as Drudkh’s Roman Saenko, but his métier is old-school Scandinavian death metal; his latest release under the Demiurg moniker (one of about a dozen projects he’s worked on in the last five years) is short but sweet. Combining razor-sharp riffs with just enough melodicism to evoke that Swedish feeling, Slakthus Gamleby (Cyclone Empire) takes a risk by putting many of the vocals in the clean hands of songstress Marjan Welman, but it ends up paying off quite well, adding a spooky gothic touch that doesn’t overstay its welcome…

Not just an imaginary group whose T-shirt your avatar can wear in Rock Band 2, Krieg is a real band with a new record, The Isolationist (Candlelight), that you can buy and listen to. A must-have for fans of basement-recorded American black-metal lunacy, The Isolationist is an aptly titled blast of haunting solitude, helped immensely by guest appearances by Noctuary’s Joseph Van Fossen and Leviathan’s Wrest, a likeminded collaborator if ever there was one.

CORE AUDIENCE. What is it about Kingdom Of Sorrow? I like Crowbar and Down just fine, and Kirk Windstein is an extremely decent, hardworking guy. I’m not crazy about Hatebreed, but Jamey Jasta can be a compelling frontman when he’s in the proper sludgy groove. And I’ve seen KoS live twice, and both times, it’s delivered a shockingly tight, energetic show. But on record, it leaves me flat as a pancake, and Behind The Blackest Tears (Relapse) is no exception. Windstein’s playing is competent enough, but nothing here stands out as anything more than a decent Down B-side, and Jasta just sounds impatient, like he’s anxious to get on to the next live show…

Reviewing a new Terror album is an exercise in futility; whether you love it or hate it, the band’s sound has stayed mind-bogglingly consistent over the last eight years. Keepers Of The Faith (Century Media) is another clockwork-constant release from the Ramones of metalcore: angry/cheerful roaring chants from Scott Vogel, crushing breakdowns from drummer Nick Jett, and no song long enough to either get on your nerves or stay in your memory…

I wanted very badly to like The Culling Of Wolves (Ferret), the new album from Knights Of The Abyss. We share a hometown (Glendale, Arizona), and they’re friends with, and have even shared personnel with, the underrated Job For A Cowboy. It’s not as if there’s nothing to like: There are some credible death-metal breakdowns, and Nick Florence’s technical skills have improved. His songwriting skills, on the other hand, haven’t; too many songs here are bog-standard deathcore-by-the-numbers, and new vocalist Harley Magnum (!) is no help at all, adding exactly nothing to the mix. The result is an album you’ll only remember in negative terms.

JUNK DRAWER. It’s been about 35 years since you could call what Austin’s Sungod does “heavy metal,” and that’s too bad. Its mind-melding conglomeration of whirlwind drumming, Krautrock guitars and vocal chants, and queasy psychedelic drones on First Matter (Cyclopean) may have gone out of style around the time Lemmy was fired from Hawkwind, but it’s the best such evocation I’ve heard since Farflung… I guess I’m just predictable, but the mere presence of the word “Earth” in a stoner, drone, or hard-rock band is sure to get a fair hearing from me, and the new album from Maryland biker-rocker combo Earthride is no exception. Riff-heavy, full of dirty fuzz at the bottom, and meant to be played painfully loud, Something Wicked (Earth Brain) is perfect for this last month or so when you can still drive with the windows down. It also guest stars Scott Weinrich, for you Wino completists…

I know as much about the Hungarian metal scene as I do the Hungarian anything else, which is to say nothing, but any scene that coughs up a band like Drünken Bastards can’t be all bad. Its new album, Horns Of The Wasted (Hell’s Headbangers) is an amazing slice of the kind of retro-thrash/speed-metal revival that only Europeans really seem to do well these days, filled with sloppy, boozed-up party metal like the kind you passed out to in high school. And the drummer is named D-Beat Hasselhoff! Amazing.

EXTENDED PLAY. We don’t often discuss EPs here at the Metal Box; occasionally an outstanding example will come around, but all too often, they’re simply a band saying, “We don’t have enough material for a new album, but we don’t want people thinking we broke up.” Then again, it’s been a slow month, so here’s the hit-and-run: The Devil Wears Prada’s Zombie EP (Ferret) is a) a heavily marketed b) concept album c) about a zombie apocalypse from d) a Christian metalcore band, so that’s four strikes just going into it, but surprisingly, it’s a hard, fast, compellingly listenable effort, with Mike Hranica’s vocals as overheated and manic as they’ve ever been…

I’m not sure if the title of Songs For Singles (Hydra Head), the new EP from Torche, is meant to be ironic, but it’s definitely the poppiest, most mainstream-indie-sounding collection of songs the band has ever done. Unfortunately, what it lacks in heaviness, it doesn’t make up for in coherence; while there are some excellent individual songs, the whole thing has a thrown-together quality that feels like the work of a band that wasn’t entirely happy with what it had done…

After 15 years, Autopsy has finally released some new material, in the form of The Tomb Within (Peaceville), but I’m not sure it’s been worth the wait. Nobody is a bigger fan of Danny Coralles’ guitar-playing than I am, and he sounds great here, but no greater than he did with Abscess, and since much of what Autopsy was famous for has been improved on and developed over the years—often by Coralles and Chris Reifert themselves—it’s hard to see why this needs to exist.

LIVE EVIL. Another thing we don’t cover much around here are live albums and concert DVDs. No matter how good the live performance is, it’s really not the next best thing to being there, and unless there’s some astonishingly good shots of the lighting racks, DVDs more or less function as a costlier live album, because who wants to sit on their couch looking at a concert they couldn’t go to? Still, somebody’s out there buying the things, so here we go: Live At The 9:30 Club (Weathermaker), a double-live DVD set from Clutch, is twice as big as it needs to be. The second disc is a self-indulgent mess of road footage, band history, celebrity and fan interviews, and other stuff no one in their right mind should care about. The actual concert footage, though, at DC’s 9:30 Club, is a monstrous piece of work that finds Clutch performing its self-titled album in its entirety, and delivering one of the most towering, pulverizing rock performances I’ve seen in ages in the process… Also released on a double-DVD, but justifying the format with two full discs worth of performance, is Opeth’s In Live Concert At The Royal Albert Hall. Featuring something for all the band’s deeply contentious fans, the first disc is a complete run-through of Blackwater Park, and the second is a grab-bag of songs from the rest of Opeth’s albums. The band lays the prog elements on pretty thick in order to take advantage of the opportunity and the venue, but even with the heaviness tuned down, it’s an occasionally fascinating document… Finally, the Roadburn Festival in the Dutch city of Tilburg has developed a reputation as the metal world’s version of All Tomorrow’s Parties: curated by some of the most influential figures in the genre, and featuring band after band delivering balls-out ferocious sets. Plenty of groups have turned in memorable live sets there (I highly recommend Earthless’ Live At Roadburn from 2008), and Neurosis is no exception; two years before the band curated the show, it rocked the festival with a stunning live set that’s now been captured on Live At Roadburn 2007 (Neurot).  Although I’ve always been in the minority that’s never been entirely sold on the genius of Neurosis, there’s no denying the power at play here, and its ability to hold an audience spellbound is rare in a band that plays this style of music. It’s a must for fans.